October 4, 2007

Angkor Wat
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Well, after lounging around Siem Reap for a week, Tatiana and I finally got around to seeing Angkor Wat.

Normally folks stick around the city just long enough to see the temples before jumping back on their transport out of town—Lord knows they're not hanging around for the food. The memory of Tatiana's simple order of chicken and rice won't soon leave our memories, as the dish actually contained no chicken meat, but the tip of a wing, chopped liver, gizzard, two small pieces of rib, and the bird's bladder. Lovely.

I do think this is another big "hook-up" town though, as there's nothing to do in the evening but hit the restaurants and bars, or maybe knock on the door of the cute traveler you met while exploring the temples. See someone you think is attractive? Break the ice by asking them to snap your photo, and take it from there.

Sunset at Angkor Wat is almost as heavily pushed by the touts and tuk tuk drivers as sunrise at Angkor Wat. We'd uncovered something about visiting Angkor Wat for free during our week here, and decided to finally take advantage of a rain-free evening by seeing one of the most hyped tourist attractions of SE Asia.

Let's see, how can I best articulate some of the visit Angkor Wat and touch God hearsay saturating the air? Ah yes, a blurb from my guidebook sets the tone well enough:

Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat that would make its European castle counterparts blush is Angkor Wat, one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind. It's the largest religious building in the world and it'll blow your socks off! Not wearing any socks? Tighten up those Tevas as they're in for a wild ride!

We walked out of the touristy part of town around mid-afternoon and flagged down a random tuk tuk. It's personal policy to never hire a non-moving taxi, as they're usually the worst of the worst (such as refusing to turn the meter on or screwing as much as they can out of the silly foreigners who actually hired them). Idling taxi transport is never to be trusted.

What every tuk tuk driver in town wants is for you to hire them as driver for a temple tour. Our driver knew he was being evaluated this afternoon for the possibility of a bigger payout tomorrow.

Generally ready to leave town and get on our way to Bangkok, we stopped en route to the temple to pay for our US$20/person, single-day passes, issued for the day following. This also gave us the benefit of allowing us into Angkor Wat with enough time to poke around the place before dusk.

Hoards of tourists, tourist buses, and tuk tuks were found upon arrival. Tatiana and I were rather put off by our driver's request of half our agreed upon round trip price, but I understood he'd probably been burned by tourists before—I just didn't want him to take off while we were inside.

I Thought It'd Be Bigger

For the world's largest blah blah blah, I found the size of the structure rather underwhelming. I think what gives people the impression this temple is huge is the walled courtyard and 300 meter sandstone causeway—temple blocks were hauled from a river 50km away. I suppose the 190m wide moat which forms a large 1.5km by 1.3km rectangle also has something to do with it.

Like many travelers before me, I was particularly fascinated by the structure's impressive display of bas-reliefs. Stretching some 800m around the outside of the central temple complex, the carvings depict a series of epic events (such as battles and concepts of heaven and hell).

One of the things I didn't realize about Angkor Wat is that there are actually five towers to the main structure. The famous silhouette you always see is the big main tower, with two lesser towers flanking on both sides. The reality of it is there are actually four lesser towers, but they align in such a way that they're not visible when looking at it centered.

Tatiana and I ultimately spent a little over an hour at Angkor Wat, and pretty much left with the notion that we'd rather see other temples than return to this one. We pretty much got the gist of it, and were particularly turned off by the number of tourists lurking around the grounds.

Our driver was patiently waiting for us when we crossed the moat, and after some deliberation and haggling with the man later in the evening, think I've proposed a winning route that will take us past the places Tatiana wants to see, and start us where there should be no tourists.

Time to get some sleep—we depart before daybreak tomorrow, at 4:30 in the morning.

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